Can SF or F Enhance People’s Religious Beliefs? I was the moderator, and a good thing, too. The answer is too obvious: No it doesn’t. Few people will come away from F/SF with their religious beliefs altered in any fashion. — SF Author Mike Flynn
A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. — C.S. Lewis
I was thinking of this subject recently when I came across one of Mike Flynn’s latest posts. I would be part the category of few people who had their religious beliefs altered in any way from reading of F/SF, or to be more accurate to have F/SF have some part in the grace God gave me in conversion.
Science Fiction was my first love as a book reader and it is what turned me from an occasional reader to a book junkie. Partly this was because of the number of SF books my father had and growing up in the time leading to the moon landing. For me this was a time of science conquering everything and answering everything and as a young atheist my inbuilt needs for faith and hope turned science to try to fill those wants. Isaac Asimov easily became my favorite author and I became the type of SF reader that prided themselves on reading hard SF where technical detail and scientific accuracy was important to me. Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Hal Clement, and of course Asimov were my SF heroes. Clarke’s view of religion throughout his novels and especially Childhood’s End dovetailed nicely with my own views and of course the societal remodeling of so many of Robert Heinlein’s books made him also a favorite author. So my choice of reading fit nicely with the C.S. Lewis quote.
Fantasy though was a genre I did not seek out. It just did not fit in my scientific worldview and if it didn’t have some mock-science basis for the world involved I just could not enter that world. I remember reading one of the Xanth novels which are humorous fantasy adventures that I was so stuck in my worldview that walking skeletons annoyed me so much that I could not finish the book. Though books like “The Once and Future King” had me enthralled so I wasn’t always consistent in what I could not suspend belief for. Perhaps something more mythological was fine for me since I so enjoyed the works of Homer and stories involving the Greek and Roman Pantheons of gods. I could enjoy stories about gods when they were not gods at all but eternal humans with all the human foibles. I never even read the Lord of the Rings until about eleven years ago (making up for that by multiple re-readings).
My opening up to Fantasy was the result that I had pretty much read all the SF I could find at the base library at NAS Whidbey Island and so decided to try a Fantasy series and one where the library had the whole series. I settled on the The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson which I enjoyed and became more open to this genre. But SF and especially hard SF was my first love and what I always searched for. Later I started reading some of the Forgotten Realms stories which often followed the common thread of a team of people going after some evil overlord, etc on a quest. While at sea somebody who shared my taste in reading opened up his library of books he had onboard to me and I first became acquainted with R.A. Salvatore with the Icewind Dale Trilogy which I quite enjoyed and had a connection in my movement towards conversion.
One of the things I noticed in reading the various hero quests is the virtues of the heroes. These fantasy heroes were more the classic heroes than the annoying anti-hero we have today. These were heroes who fought temptation and would build up their virtues and not compromise them. I really came to love these stories and I started to wonder why it was that they were so attractive to me when I was not really willing to build my own virtues and had lots of excuses of why I could compromise my own values for convenience sake. I found it quite annoying that I wanted to act like them, but wasn’t really willing to take the time to in fact emulate them. My earlier heroes were the stoic intellectual beings like Sherlock Holmes, Spock, Data, etc who when I failed to emulate them I excused this since they were an ideal not only often non human, but a non human ideal. The Fantasy heroes were a different thing to me since I felt that there example could indeed be followed and that it was very human to want to do so. These realizations did not cause me to want to drive to the closest church and sign up, but they were realizations along the path road of grace.
I started thinking about these things again because I am re-reading the series written by R.A. Salvatore involving Drizzt Do’Urden. During the part of my life before becoming Catholic and I was reading tons of books involving theology from various Christian perspectives I also started to read the start of the Drizzt Do’Urden books and so much in them coincided perfectly in what I was going through and so were important memories for me.
Drizzt Do’Urden as a character is a Dark Elf raised in the Underdark where cruelty and jockeying for position were the rules of the day. This matriarchal society devoted to the Spider-Queen goddess Loth spent their days planning on how to retain these evil goddess’s favor and to overthrow houses above them in ranking. Murder and sacrifice of victims and even family were the norms in this evil society. Drizzt the secondson to Matron Malice the head of House Do’Urden plans to use her new son as either a sorcerer or warrior to build their house, though there is no motherly feelings among the Dark Elves where are persons are to be used to your advantage. His unacknowledged father Zaknafein one of the consorts of Matron Malice and the house’s weapons master begins to train Drizzt. Zak though is the rare Drow not at ease with the evil depravity of the Dark Elves, but comprimies by taking delight in the killing of other Drows and especially the matron mother of other houses, he though wishes more for Drizzt who he sees as being more innocent and naive of the ways of the Dark Elfs. Drizzt indeed like his father is not happy with the world around him which at first he was insulated from and has to come to terms of how he can live in this setting when his conscience is so aroused against it.
Many of the chapters start with reminiscences from Drizzt and the awakening of his moral sense and how he must follow his conscience. He does not see conscience in the modern sense, but as also something that must be informed so that he can act on his conscience directly. In many ways I sees these stories of almost a hagiography in that Drizzt is working towards becoming a saint. He fights against losing himself in the environment in which he leaves and is willing to die to keep from hurting the innocent or not doing all he can to protect a friend. He worries about compromising himself and taking the easy path. At one point he has a mask which can hide his drow features making it easier for him to live among people who would instantly hate him for being a Dark Elf, but determines this a falsity that he can not live with. While the author probably did not intend to write a character with so many Catholic sensibilities and moral sense, nevertheless he did so in the character of Drizzt and re-reading the series I am delighted to see that I did not just read this aspect into the series, but that it was still there to be seen and the series is just as enjoyable as I remembered. Also very enjoyable are his companions along the way made up of various races (Human, Dwarf, Hafling, Svirfneblin) who also show the various virtues and come to see beyond the outward appearance of the Dark Elf.
So while there are many factors in conversion and God uses many different things for each individual I was glad that the series involving Drizzt Do’Urden was one of them and while the Lord of the Rings has become my favorite involving this genre, R.A. Salvatore and the multiple books involving Drizzt Do’Urden and his other books will always hold a special place for me and to bring back memories to me when I return to them.
* You can read Mike Flynn post on the panel he hosted here. Mike Flynn is another of my favorite writers in my first love of SF and I can recommend his whole catalog.
* My favorite SF series is Dune and I have read this series multiple times and I find it interesting now that while Frank Herbert was no theist his worlds did not eliminate religion like so much of SF. He at least acknowledges the very human capacity of religious beliefs which make his gigantic story arc fuller. I have also read all the Dune books written by his son and another author which followed his Frank Herbert’s notes and story arc and I really enjoyed these, but they are not quite as good as his father’s work